Gotham West Market stall. There, Orkin checks off yet another remarkable feat: With those deep and deeply satisfying bowls, he’s turned a cramped cafeteria counter into the hottest seat in town—well, until his next spot opens.
PDT vet Don Lee treats maligned concoctions like Harvey Wallbangers and Buttery Nipples with a reverence that rivals storied pre-Prohibition sips, bringing them up to code for today’s discerning drinkers without losing one ounce of that irresistible frivolity: Even with its enzyme-clarified orange juice, the Wallbanger is as approachably sweet and flamboyantly bright as it was when the Gibb brothers were topping the charts.
wd~50—Wylie Dufresne distills his kitchen chemistry for the everyman. Here, the chef performs mind-bending trickery with such sleight of hand, you won’t know it’s happening until the fork hits your lips. Gone is tweezer-food fussiness—you can have your clam chowder or pastrami-on-rye, but the soup comes studded with oyster crackers made of actual oysters. And the pastrami is transformed into jerky dust atop tangles of rye fettuccine for a bite as familiar as a Katz’s sandwich. But Dufresne’s best trick at Alder is pushing his geek wizardry out of its special-occasion confines, putting forth food you can—and want to—eat any day of the week.
Isa—powered back onto the scene with Estela. Pulling a page from the downtown textbook, the fetching restaurant turned it out with silvery antiqued mirrors, a smooth marble bar and sultry globe lights. But that’s where the ruse ends: The kitchen’s still got a freak behind the stove. Mattos’s brand of bizarro food goes undercover in semi-familiar forms—a fish-sauce-smacked beef tartare tinted nutty with sunchoke chips, say, or petite slices of luscious rib eye ceding the plate to smoldering eggplant. Flush with good wine from Thomas Carter’s smartly toned list and soothed by gut-grabbing plates, you may not even notice that the food’s got kink. Mattos thrilled (and faltered) with his in-your-face edginess at Isa; at Estela he’s proved that sometimes the best line of attack is surprise.
Bunker’s derelict block looks like a Law & Order crime scene, the last place you’d think to find an Eleven Madison Park alum whipping up the city’s most deliciously disarming Vietnamese, smoothing house-made pâté for a swine-lover’s banh mi, and wringing every last drop of flavor from a freshly killed free-range bird for the chicken curry. Jimmy Tu isn’t the first chef to bring fine-dining chops to street food, but no New York cook before him has bestowed Vietnamese with such cool-kid status and unmitigated respect. Bunker’s far-flung locale may have hyped up its rebel mystique, but for food this fly, we would’ve hopped a plane to Hanoi.
Battersby—where, incidentally, they rock one of Kings County’s best kale salads—Walker Stern and Joe Ogrodnek have forged a seasonal spot that’s more polished sheen than three-day scruff, zooming in on the food instead of asinine mason-jar preciousness. And rightly so: The Ducasse-trained chefs turn out flavor bombs like fish-sauce-charred lamb ribs and luscious pork belly jolted with quince jus. On the crowded road from farm to table, Dover leaves the locavore pileup in the dust.
Chelsea Market, the antimall known more for artisanal olive oils and Anthropologie threads than real-deal street food. But Los Tacos No. 1 was the year’s great phantom punch, hitting the scene without preopening hype and stunning early lunch crowds with the type of mom-and-pop Mexican fare that’s kryptonite to smug Angelenos. The cheerful stand may lack the grit of a Tijuana street cart, but the flavors arrived todo intact, anchored by jugs of agua fresca and mounds of fresh masa pressed into small tortillas. The griddle-puffed stunners deliver meats amped up to the nth power, in tacos like the chili-marinated pork adobada, carved straight off a glistening spit with bright chunks of pineapple, and in the especial—a flash-fried quesadilla variant stuffed with beefy carne asada and oozing Monterey Jack. For Latin food this damn fresh, the standing-only counter is no problemo: After inhaling those gloriously sloppy packages upright, you’re back in line before even considering a seat.
Betony, Eleven Madison Park trenchmates Bryce Shuman and Eamon Rockey installed a new regime in its old space. The cherub murals and crystal chandeliers as plentiful as shirtless Putin photos were wisely scrapped for a clipped-in elegance and suavely understated servers. But the most fundamental (and welcome) about-face is the food: Unlike Pushkin’s self-serious, pelmeni-kindled misfires, Shuman’s plates are sucker-punch good, marvels of military-precise technique and outright soul. Dishes such as an elegant canapé-like riff on the tuna melt showed off all-American winking humor, and others, like short ribs bathed in beef fat, are meant to be selfishly hoarded—leave sharing to the Eastern Bloc.
Mission Chinese Food, the sweaty Szechuan dive that racked up more celebrity fist bumps than the Church of Scientology. But you can’t put this iconoclast chef in a box—he is, after all, the dude who accepted a James Beard Award in Dries Van Noten and a pair of Jordan XIs. Telling him he can’t switch from Chinese to Mexican food is like telling Kanye he can’t design clothes. At Cantina, his South of the Border second act, the maverick chef has nimbly swapped Szechuan peppercorns for salsa while preserving the party vibe that’s become his tastemaker trademark. Food geeks came running for the San Francisco–style burritos, which hit the streets with as little warning as Beyoncé’s latest album. But Bowien’s Mexican ambitions run far deeper: Peek into the open kitchen and you’ll see the team nixtamalizing heirloom Anson Mills corn to make from-scratch tortillas, or supercharging fried wings with mole spices and splashes of crema. Lesson learned: When Bowien flips the script, get in early and often—you never know when he’ll be on to the next one.